Interlude: The Army of God
Chapter 7:1-8. Just when we seem to be getting to the seventh seal, there is a dramatic pause…
…to give time for God to set his “seal” upon all those who serve him. The seal is said to be a kind of protection from some of the plagues in 9:4, where the locusts cannot harm those with the sign. Dr. Spilsbury notes, however, that this does not promise absolute safety from persecution or tribulation (p.74). In fact, being part of this multitude involves martyrdom.
To repeat from Part 4: The contrast between what he hears and what he sees is a stylistic device in which he “hears” about 144,000 Israelites (a description involving the multiples of Israel’s number, 12 recounted in a way that suggests a mighty army numbered for battle [read Numbers to get the flavour]).
What he sees is “an innumerable multitude” of marrtyrs who, rather than fighting and winning a war, die as they witness of Jesus Christ and His saving work. The contrast is mind-blowing, because these are the same group.
The number he hears is a troop equal in number to 144 Roman Legions. This may not seem like much unless you have read that the Roman Empire usually had somewhere between 25 and 35 Legions in arms in any given year. [Stats courtesy of Wikipedia.] This would have represented a formidable military force that could have easily defeated all the troops in the Roman Empire.
In 7:9-10 John contrasts that with an “innumerable multitude” with palm branches in their hands (remember the palm branches they lay in the path to welcome Jesus in Matthew 21:8-10). They are dressed in white, the colour of purity that was generally worn by Priests in Israel on the most holy festival occasions.
These people have passed through “great tribulation” (v. 14) and have “washed their robes” in the blood of the lamb. In Dr. Spilsbury’s words, “The most significant thing about the washed robes is that they are washed by the ones who wear them. This is striking because we might have expected the elder to say that their robes were washed by the lamb… Instead the image is one of active involvement. The multitudes robed in white deliberately aligned themselves with the lamb who was slaughtered… And because of that, they share his experience in the world… Ultimately this means they have shared in his death by their own deaths. They are martyrs just as he was a martyr.” [P. 76]
About the tribulation, he says, “The great ordeal-or ‘tribulation,’ as it is sometimes called-was predicted as far back as the book of Daniel… it refers to the period from the opening of the first seal to the arrival of the triumphant Christ… It is the age we are presently living in. To be a follower of Jesus Christ is to live in a time of trouble-as Jesus himself said (Jn 16:33)… the seal of God… is protection from being overwhelmed by the evil one. It is protection of our loyalty and committment.” [P.77-78]
[I noticed while doing a word search on the word in Rev. 3:10 (the hour of “trial”) that the church in Philadelphia was to be protected from that it is the same word as the word usually translated “temptation” in the Lord’s Prayer. Like the seal of God in Chapter 7, this protection is not a promise of a pre-tribulation rapture. (In fact, given Dr. Spilsbury’s definition of “tribulation,” it should have occured before Jesus’ ascension if it was pre-tribulation.) The “rapture” of the Book of Revelation is the resurrection or “gathering” of saints at Jesus’ return.]
The “army of God” is the multitude of martyrs. This is the reason God must “wipe away every tear from their eyes” in 7:17. The time of trouble and great tribulation isn’t over yet – and it won’t be until Jesus returns in power and might.